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Old-Time TOTW #28: Step Around Johnny (1/6/19)

Posted by FiddlerPaul71 on Sunday, January 6, 2019

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Hello, Friends!

This week I chose to feature Step Around Johnny, a tune from Alabama that seems to be pretty popular at jams and festivals these days. Before embarking on my Old-Time TOTW series, I must confess I did not know much about the tune, other than the fact that I liked it. When my good fiddlin' friend Terri Luka?ko (@fiddlejammer) so kindly gifted me the Milliner-Koken collection several years ago for my birthday, that was the first tune I looked at in the book. If memory serves me, Terri had me open the book to any random page, and there was Johnny. I guess that day kinda stuck with me all these years, because it was a fun day filled with music and friends from Upstate New York, and I was given a special gift from a very special friend. Little did I know that book was going to become so important to me as one of many research tools to explore the tunes and lives of the source fiddlers. Each time I open it, I think of Terri. 

So, who was Sam Taylor? One of the very few (only? I haven't delved that deeply yet) tunes in Milliner-Koken from which the source is not a fiddler. Selmer Joe "Sam" Taylor was born February 3, 1929 in Blountsville, AL to Dee Elmer Taylor (1902-1974) and Viderlee Allen (1910-1995). He learned to play mandolin and guitar as a child, but from whom, I was not successful in discovering. His maternal grandfather, James Keenchum “Jim M.” Allen, (1883-1965), is noted as having been an excellent fiddler. Milliner-Koken also mention that Sam had an uncle, Simon Pate, who played fiddle. I was not able to find out anything about him, not even in any public documents, like the census. I did not see the surname Pate anywhere in documents, nor in the Taylor-Allen family tree. If anybody has information on Simon Pate, please let me know.

The story goes that as a teenager, Sam formed a band called the Hamilton Mountain Boys. That would have, apparently, been in the early-to-mid-1940s. It seems that it was pretty common in that era for people to start their own band. “Hillbilly” music had been gaining popularity since the 1920s when the Skillet Lickers started to record on the Columbia label. Taylor's band broke up because most of the members were called to serve our country in the Korean War (which began on June 25, 1950). He registered for the Draft on February 4, 1947.

Upon returning home from the war, Sam Taylor married Grace Ann Posey on August 1, 1953. Grace was born on July 26, 1935 and passed away rather young, at the age of 47, on November 20, 1982.

The only mention of Sam, relating to music, after his return from Korea was that he played for community gatherings with other Blount County musicians, including fiddlers such as Ralph Whited, Grady Cornelius, and Eben Pate. This information comes from Milliiner-Koken. Note the surname Pate, the same as Simon mentioned above.

Sam died April 3, 2017 in Blountsville, AL. His obituary states:

Mr. Taylor served in the United States Army. He retired as a Supervisor with the State Highway Department and was a member of Welcome Baptist Church #1.


He enjoyed playing bluegrass music, farming and spending time with his family, especially his grandchildren and great grandchildren.”


The Red Mountain White Trash band had a personal connection to Sam Taylor and the tune. They played the tune on their 1999 CD “Chicken's Don't Roost Too High” and had this to say about it in the liner notes:

Step Around, Johnny: A group of us bought property on the Locust Fork River together and were happy to learn that the Taylor and Allen families had played a lot of old-time music there. Sam Taylor, a guitarist and mandolin player from Oneonta, Alabama, taught us this tune played by his maternal grandfather, Jim Allen. His aunt calls the same tune the 'Jones Piece.'”

There are no lyrics associated with the tune, as far as I know. Like many fiddle tunes, words may have existed that were sung to the tune, but have long since been lost. Often, just one part of the tune has lyrics, but in the case of Step Around Johnny, both the fine and coarse parts call out words to me. I made these words for the tune, and had others in mind that I put on the back burner.


Sung to the fine strain (“A part”) on the repeat:

Johnny came home drunk one night,
He and Lizzie had a fight;
Things in there got pretty loud,
Step Around Johnny now.


Sung to the coarse strain (“B part” going right into it after the “A part”):

Step Around Johnny now,
Layin' there on the ground,
Down there with his hound,
Step Around Johnny now.


I see words to the coarse strain as being like a chorus, so these lyrics could stay the same. Or not. We'll see how the words grow and evolve. I don't sing them very often because going up to that high F# in the fine strain is a little tough on my voice, unless I've had plenty of moonshine or apple brandy (courtesty of Bill and Vickie Smedley), and it's late and I really just don't care how high it is, or how the heck I sound. But when I have sung them, people liked it, and then usually say “Wow, I didn't know this tune had words!” Well, they didn't, but you know, really any tune can have words...

It's all about having fun, right? And we certainly had a lot of fun at this jam with our friends Melinda and Josh coming to visit from Pittsburgh, PA. 

Thank you, Mr. Taylor for passing this great tune down to us!

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